Longform

Clueless

Page 9 of 10

But there were more problems. One note on the autopsy report read: "Evidence in bags with body!" This had created the possibility of cross-contamination with trace evidence. In addition, material from the scene had been packed into an empty paint can and several other nonstandard containers.

A document from a Grayson County investigator says that "portions of dead will be placed in a plastic bag as they have no paper bags at scene." Several containers arrived in an old box marked "Crown Paint Thinner: Paint Related Material." Had it been found at the scene? If not, it was an inappropriate way to transport materials.

The photos are gruesome--showing the muscular body of Brent Gutheinz reduced to a charred mass of ruined black flesh and exposed bone, his lower face missing and crawling with insects. One photo shows his legs draped by the gray blanket.

Because of the decomposition, burns and animal activity, McClain's final determination was deliberately broad. Possible cause of death included, but was not limited to, manual or ligature strangulation, smothering, neck compression, drowning, sharp force injuries and blunt force injuries.

No tests had been ordered to determine the time of death. McClain said that based on the legs, it could have occurred from the last time he was seen alive to within 24 hours of the autopsy. A more accurate time of death might have been determined by examining insect larvae in the body, but that test had not been requested, nor had a test to determine the accelerant used. (Both of those tests would be done years later, at Jerry's insistence.)

In fact, the forensic testing had been cut short. After the identification, Bennie had notified the medical examiner that he was sending the evidence to the DPS lab. He would later tell the Gutheinzes that he had more trust in the DPS lab. But Jerry found out from a secretary that the move saved Grayson County almost $900.

After his meeting with McClain, Jerry sat in his car in the parking lot and cried. The multiple mistakes were a prosecutor's nightmare and a defense attorney's dream. Jerry knew then that nobody would pay for butchering Brent.


In late 1998, after writing state Senator Florence Shapiro--and with the help of Angie McCown, the victims coordinator with the DPS--the Gutheinzes got an audience in Austin with the then-head of the Texas Rangers, Bruce Casteel, Bennie and several other Rangers. Jerry confronted them with the autopsy report and photos, saying that even if no one was ever prosecuted for the murder, he had to know what happened to his son.

Jerry says Casteel agreed that mistakes had been made and promised to get the investigation back on track. They came up with a list of several dozen items that needed to be done.

Over the next year, the Gutheinzes heard little from Bennie. In late 1999, Diana was close to a nervous breakdown. Emily, who went into an emotional tailspin after her brother's death, was still struggling. To move things forward, they hired former district Judge Robert Moss, who helped set up a meeting with Bennie and G.W. Hildebrand, a retired DPS officer. Jerry secretly taped the meeting.

From the transcript of the meeting it appears that two immovable forces had collided--the exasperated investigator and the single-minded father.

The Ranger admitted that he hadn't done many of the items on the agreed-upon "action list." But Bennie said he had been working on the case, talking to key people and testing some physical evidence, though he wouldn't tell them the results.

But another thing jumps out: Information as basic as whether Brent died Thursday or Friday night had not been determined. Though a forensic entomologist had been asked to examine slides from the autopsy, Bennie didn't know when the photos were taken, which would impact the insect activity observed on the slides. "As far as the actual time of death," Bennie said, "I'm not set on that." Nor was it clear when Brent was last seen alive.

With the Gutheinzes out of the room, Bennie acknowledged to Moss the problem with the gray blanket, but contended that the paint-thinner box contained unused paint cans used to collect arson evidence. But he refused Moss' suggestion of bringing another agency in on the case.

"There's a lot going on that they don't know," Bennie said. "I promise you if I ever get to a point where I need to holler 'calf-rope' and bring some help in, I'll damn sure do it."

The Gutheinzes felt that the only new information Bennie had to offer was that a dozen experts had examined the mutilation of the corpse and concluded that the goal was to render the body unidentifiable, not to satisfy some weird sadistic or ritualistic need.

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Glenna Whitley